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All Souls College, biography, historian
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In 1915 Berlin's family moved to St. Petersburg where, some months later, he was an eyewitness to the Russian Social-Democratic revolution (March 1917) and the Bolshevik revolution (October 1917) events which, in his own opinion, changed him for life.
In 1920 the Berlin family moved back to Riga, now the capital of an independent Latvia, and then emigrated to London, where they had business interests.
As a boy Berlin had had some Jewish religious education, this was continued in London, where he had his bar mitzvah. It appears that his Jewish background proved to be an obstacle to his being accepted as a pupil at Westminster School with the result that his family sought his being educated at St. Paul's.
At St. Paul's Berlin proved to be only a fair student and, on that basis was denied admission to Balliol College, Oxford, but managed to gain a scholarship to Corpus Christi. At the end of a course in humane letters Berlin was awarded a "bad" first but he then took another course, in philosophy, in which he was awarded a "better" first.
At this stage of his life Berlin had no definite thoughts as to a career. He attended an unsuccessful interview for a journalistic position with the Manchester Guardian, he declined his father's invitation to join him in the family business as he felt he could not belong in that world, he also considered law until this continued indecision was eventually interrupted by an offer of a teaching post in philosophy at Oxford University.
Berlin became a lecturer in philosophy at New College in 1932 and was appointed a Fellow of All Souls College at a remarkably young age. He was also the first Jew to hold such a fellowship. Some of the leading analytic philosophers of the day including J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, Stuart Hampshire, Donald MacKinnon, and Donald Macnabb often attended meetings held in Berlin's rooms at All Souls College.
The outbreak of the Second World War led to Berlin being redeployed and sent to New York, where he worked for the British Information Service, and then to Washington, where his assignment was to report on the direction of opinions and moods in America.
After the war Berlin was seconded briefly to the British Embassy in Moscow where he was given a role in preparing commentary on the output of the Russian press. It was his first visit to Russia since his family had left for Riga in 1920. Berlin was advised by British diplomats that he would find extreme difficulty in speaking with anyone other than the officials assigned to him by the communist regime which had a tradition of attempting to discourage meetings between Soviet citizens and foreigners. It transpired that he was able to independently meet a number of Russian artists and writers, and he wrote that "it was like speaking to the victims of a shipwreck on a desert island, cut off for decades from civilization."
Berlin later wrote an article about his meetings with Russian writers in which he expressed a sympathetic regret for the conditions under which they were obliged to live due to the restrictions imposed by the Soviet regime on most forms of artistic expression.
Berlin spent the years from 1947 to 1958 as a writer and lecturer in Oxford and London, and also in the United States at Washington, and at the universities as Harvard, Princeton, Bryn Mawr, and Chicago.
In the 1950s, Berlin fell in love with Aline de Gunzbourg, a Frenchwoman who was the descendant of a noble Russian family whom he married in 1956.
Berlin was so beguiling a conversationalist that when Prime Minister Harold MacMillan nominated him in 1957 for the queen's list he noted that the knighthood should be bestowed "for talking."
From 1957 to 1967, Sir Isaiah held the prestigious Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory. As the first president of Wolfson College from 1966 to 1975, he was instrumental in attracting a strong faculty to a new school at Oxford.
His best-known essay in the United States, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," a 1953 study of Tolstoy's view of history as embodied in "War and Peace." is regarded as a classic of political inquiry and literary criticism. In this essay, which became part of a great body of work by Sir Isaiah on Russian thinkers of the 19th century, he drew a distinction between two human types: those, like the fox, who pursue many ends, often unrelated, even contradictory, and those, like the hedgehog, who relate everything to a single universal organizing principle.
Sir Isaiah's 1959 essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," is considered a major contribution to political theory. In it, he made a distinction between negative liberty, that which the individual must be allowed to enjoy without state interference, and positive liberty, that which the state permits by imposing regulations that, by necessity, limit some freedoms in the name of greater liberty for all. He argued that both kinds of liberty were required for a just society.
Much of Berlin's writing might have been left lying in the basement of Headington House, his elegant Queen Anne residence in Oxford, had an enterprising young graduate student not come along to gather it together. Sir Isaiah's lectures were often not published and his essays were scattered in so many magazines and journals that his body of work was inaccessible to most people. Henry Hardy, the graduate student, set out to collect it in four volumes that became five: "Russian Thinkers"( 1978); "Concepts and Categories" (1978); "Against the Current" (1979); "Personal Impressions" (1980) and "The Crooked Timber of History," (1990).
In addition, Sir Isaiah was the author of five other books: "Karl Marx," (1939); "The Age of Enlightenment" (1956), "Four Essays on Liberty " (1969); "Vico and Herder"( 1976); and "The Magus of the North: J.G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism" (1993).
Until the publication of the Hardy collections, Sir Isaiah had been known as a man who talked much but wrote little and had, in fact, been taken to task for not producing a major opus.
Sir Isaiah had begun to move away from analytic philosophy towards the history of ideas at the time of his return to academic life in Oxford after the Second World War. After his involvements with the earth shattering events of the war years analytic philosophy seemed to be a little disconnected from history and from the human lives lived in historical contexts. An initial opening of Berlin's interest to the whole area of the history of ideas, and of their influence, arising through his becoming familiar with the work of the Russian philosopher and revolutionary Alexander Herzen.
Herzen's writings about the history of social and political ideas made a tremendous impression on Isaiah Berlin and he increasingly involved himself in far-reaching related studies.
Sir Noel Annan, who wrote the introduction to Sir Isaiah's 1980 book, "Personal Impressions," observed: "Nobody in our time has invested ideas with such personality, given them a corporeal shape and breathed life into them more than Isaiah Berlin; and he succeeds in doing so because ideas for him are not mere abstractions. They live ... in the minds of men and women, inspiring them, shaping their lives, influencing their actions and changing the course of history."
Sir Isaiah came to believe in the overriding importance of ideas. "When ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them -- that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas -- they often acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism," he wrote in "Two Concepts of Liberty." He added: "Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization. ... If professors can truly wield this fatal power, may it not be that only other professors, or, at least, other thinkers (and not governments or congressional committees) can alone disarm them? Our philosophers seem oddly unaware of these devastating effects of their activities."
A staunch advocate of pluralism in a century in which totalitarians and utopians claimed title to the one, single truth, Sir Isaiah considered the very notion that there could be one final answer to organizing human society a dangerous illusion that would lead to nothing but bloodshed, coercion, and deprivation of liberty.
The theme that runs throughout his work is his concern with liberty and the dignity of human beings, and he sought to emphasize that at all times, difficult, even tragic, tradeoffs had to be made. It was his view that man must forever choose among incommensurable and often incompatible values, that equality, for example, must at times be sacrificed to liberty.
Sir Isaiah did however believe that the "great man" can bring about significant historical change. He was also a critic of the concept of 'historical inevitability' and of a 'determinist interpretation of human affairs' :-
"Principally it seems to me to spring from a desire to resign from our responsibility, to cease from judging provided we be not judged ourselves and, above all, are not compelled to judge ourselves; from a desire to flee for refuge to some vast amoral, impersonal, monolthic whole, nature or history, or class, or race, or 'harsh realities of our time,' or 'the irresistible evolution of the social structure' ..."
As an exponent of the history of ideas Sir Isaiah was awarded the Erasmus, Lippincott and Agnelli prizes and was also awarded the Order of Merit, Britain's highest honour for intellectual achievement.
Sir Isaiah was interested in the arts and was at various times Chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery, a Trustee of the British Museum and a Director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
He was also a supporter of Zionism holding that Jews living as religious minorities in many states often effectively lived on a basis of compromise where they were tolerated, to varying degrees, rather than fully accepted as integral to the life of the state. Outside a Jewish state citizens who were Jewish by faith were thus usually denied a full living of their lives "in the light of day."
Sir Isaiah Berlin, philosopher and noted exponent of the history of ideas, revered for his intellect and cherished for his wit and his gift for friendship, died on Wednesday night, November 12th, 1997, of a heart attack in Oxford, England. He was 88.
Since Sir Isaiah's death his literary trustees have continued to make available books that are assembled from the many essays, lectures, and articles that are attributable to him. Two of these being 'Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty' and 'Liberty' this last being an expansion upon Sir Isaiah's "Four Essays on Liberty."
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